Constructing National Identity: Japanese Narratives and Triadic Discourses

Sebastian Brooke, Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, Kogakuin University, Tokyo [About | Email]

Volume 22, Issue 3 (Article 9 in 2022). First published in ejcjs on 17 December 2022.


This paper examines the dominant narratives and discourses that inform and underpin national identity constructs in Japan. It starts with an examination of pre-modern Japan, before exploring the significant impacts of the Meiji nation-building period. This then leads to a discussion of wars and peace and the force these both exerted on the development of national identity constructs. The post-war economic booms and busts are investigated for their development of identity narratives focused on the past, along with the ‘theories on Japaneseness’ or ‘Nihonjinron’, discourses that became dominant narratives still in play today. This discussion explores the ‘triadic narrative’ used in reinforcing adherence to the dominant discourses of national identity, a story with three parts; the ‘glorious past’, the ‘degraded present’, and a ‘utopian future’ awaiting the national collective.

Keywords: Japan, national identity, history, Nihonjinron


To understand the dominant identity constructions that constitute Japanese identity, it is necessary to look at where these narratives and discourses developed and the changes that have resulted from the power struggles that inevitably are part of the process of national identity construction. Identity-building is never a static process, but is something that needs continuous reinforcing, especially in the formative periods. As Calhoun (1997) has stated in regard to national narratives, national identity as a discourse:

What now seem settled, almost natural national identities are the results of symbolic struggles and both cultural and very material violence. Not only violence, to be sure: national identity and common histories are also the result of cultural creativity—the writing of novels that millions want to read, the shared exposure to television programmes. (Calhoun, 1997, p. 85)

Although it is not uncommon for Japanese politicians (see Ozawa, 1993) to point to the long, uninterrupted cultural and national history of their country and people, the understanding and concept of Japan and the discourse of Japanese national identity, is a relatively recent, and more complex one (McVeigh, 2006). There has of course been a continual selection from the stories and histories of various historical groupings in Japan, a form of cherry-picking, that has added to the myth of the historical permanence and existence of a Japanese national identity that can be traced directly back to the sun-goddess Amaterasu (Ashkenazi, 2008). In all national identity constructions, the blend of history and indigenous religious/cultural beliefs and practices can not be understated, and this combination indeed figures strongly in the rather modern construction of Japanese identity.

This discussion will examine the development of Japanese national identity and investigate the forces involved in the construction of the dominant narratives to be found at work in such identity formulation today. It will be argued that the dominant discourses of national identity follow Levinger & Lytle’s ‘triadic narrative’ (2001, p. 179), a story with three parts: the ‘glorious past’, the ‘degraded present’, and a ‘utopian future’. It will also be argued that it is the ‘glorious past’ that is the most dominant discourse underpinning modern Japanese identity narratives. Media, literature, history, and myth, all play significant roles in the imagining of national identity, in helping to bring together people with varied backgrounds and unite them into an autonomous, separate group, distinct from others around them linguistically and culturally, and particularly in the case of Japan, territorially, with geography and borders playing important roles in the re-imagining of history and myth-making. As Morris-Suzuki (1998) puts it in a discussion of memories, nationalism, and history:

Knowledge of and pride in the national past are seen as a glue which binds the nation together, saving it from “disintegration” in the face of external threats or internal insecurities. History is expected to serve as a primer of morals, whose inspiring lessons will temper the character of the next generation of citizens. But it is also understood as collective memory: the greater narrative of national society into which the smaller narratives of individual, family or local memory must fit like pieces of a jigsaw. (Morris-Suzuki, 1998, p. 9)

These narratives have, however, had to adapt to the effects of communication technologies and the spread of global awareness (see Eades, Gill, & Befu, 2000). What this has meant in reality is the development of some kind of global uniformity in dress, political systems, social customs, and food culture, just to mention a few areas that have been influenced. This commodification of identity, identity as something to be attained and secured through consumerism, has exerted its influence upon traditional narratives of Japanese national identity, in conjunction with the fracturing of contemporary society across generational and socioeconomic divides. It will be argued that these social upheavals have seen further reliance on the triadic narrative, particularly use of the ‘glorious past’, in part to defend against the disconnections with national identity discourses that are being experienced in a fracturing nation.

History, and the idea of permanence in national identity, is one of the dominant forces involved in national identity constructions. Individuals are born into social, cultural, and language relationships, yet it is the national identity constructions that provide many of the foundations for individual identity. As Calhoun (1997) explains it:

In the discourse of nationalism, one is simply Chinese, French or Eritrean. The individual does not require the mediations of family, community, region, or class to be a member of the nation. Nationality is understood precisely as an attribute of the individual, not of the intermediate associations. This way of thinking reinforces the idea of nationality as a sort of trump card in the game of identity. While it does not preclude other self-understandings, within most nationalist ideologies it is held to override them at least in times of national crisis and need. In Foucault’s sense, therefore, nationality is understood as inscribed in the very body of the modern individual (Foucault 1977, 1978-88; see also Fanon 1963). A person without a country must therefore be understood to lack not only a place in the external world but a proper self (cf. Bloom 1990). (Calhoun, 1997, p. 46)

It is necessary to look briefly at Japanese history from the pre-modern period through to the Meiji era and the development of systems of government and education that have played important roles in forging national identity and developing concepts of national citizens. The Meiji era provided many of the narratives and discourses that we find in use today in Japan, and as we will see, it was perhaps the most important period in the history of nation-building in Japan. This was the period in history when Japan was created as a nation, when national identity discourses were brought to the fore (see Ikegami, 1995; and Shibata, 2004). It was a time when forces, both external and internal, played their roles in the construction of national identity, and although it was not an uncontested process, many of the dominant stories, myths, symbols, beliefs, and narratives, are still being used today in the process of building and uniting national citizens (see Parmenter, 1999; Tamamoto, 2003; and Doak, 2007).

This period of Japan’s history will necessarily also lead to a discussion of the role of war and expansionism, and in particular the Pacific War, as a modern narrative for shaping Japanese identity both at the time and still today. The following post-war period was one of economic development that gave rise to many of the narratives still attempting to ply their trade in identity politics today, such as the idealised image of the loyal, company man, or salaryman, devoting his life to the economic success of his company, and by extension, to the development of his homeland.

The post-war economic success of Japan, although attributable to a number of factors, becomes one of the leading reasons for the development of the ‘Nihonjinron’ nationalistic writings and ideas, the theories of Japanese as being unique, and these supposedly unique qualities being directly responsible for the economic success of the nation (see Sugimoto, 1999; and Hein, 2008). These beliefs are still part of the modern discourse of identity construction today, cropping up in commentary on television, in political speeches, as well as in numerous articles and books. The connection to economics is not so strong anymore given the long-lasting recession in Japan over the past 20 years, yet the belief in the uniqueness of the Japanese experience and identity, of everything from geography and climate, through to national character and personality attributes, remains dominant (see Befu, 2001). States make use of pre-existing elements, artefacts, and relationships, cultural, linguistic and social, and in particular, utilise and appeal to imagined commonalities and histories. It is this sense of collective memory, of a shared distant past connecting to the present, that helps create a sense of community, of shared membership, of national identity, and it is often through the apparatus of the state that such shared memories are filtered and distributed.

The post-bubble economic malaise and the forces of globalisation that modern communication technologies have helped disseminate at increasing speeds and with extensive coverage, have brought about changes in the narratives of identity in Japan (see Gerteis & George, 2013). Global consumerism is more than ever a dominant discourse for identity, brandism the new religion (Stearns, 2006). As many Japanese become increasingly alienated from the traditional social structures of family and career, as urbanisation continues at rapid pace, as companies restructure and layoffs increase and the number of new recruits are cut, as low birth-rates and a lack of workable immigration policies sap the country’s economic structure, traditional narratives of Japanese identity are plaintively raised as a cure to the country’s ills (see Osaki, 2017). Levinger & Lytle (2001, p. 179) refer to this as the ‘triadic narrative’, how the dominant discourses of national identity position the past as ‘glorious’, the present as ‘degraded’ and the future as ‘utopian’ for the national collective. Major corporations have often picked up the tab for such appeals through advertising in major newspapers and on television, as attested to by the ‘Nippon o homeyou’ or ‘Praise Japan’ movement. This involved some sixty of Japan’s leading corporations advertising through appeals to some aspect of the Japanese way, an attempt to lock down identity parameters to traditional ones in the face of identity flux, with ‘the glorious past’ of the triadic narrative being the dominant discourse, in part brought about by the forces of the new, globalising order, the ‘degraded present’. As Anthony Smith (1991) tells us, regarding the use of dominant narratives, images and traditions:

It may be possible to manufacture traditions and to package imagery, but images and traditions will be sustained only if they have some popular resonance, and they will have that resonance only if they can be harmonized and made continuous with a perceived collective past. (Smith, 1991, p. 159)

Historical Periods

Understanding the historical realities of pre-modern Japan is not always a straightforward process, especially as Pearson tells us (in Denoon, Hudson et al., 1996, p. 120) that the discipline of archaeology, of understanding the historical records of Japan, is ‘an important part of Japanese national historical nativistic discourse’, and that this study of the past is also often stymied by bans on excavations of major sites having any connection to the Imperial family. The ascension of Emperor Jimmu to the imperial throne in 660BC is often used as the starting point for the development of modern Japanese national identity (see James, 2011), and indeed the date of that ascension, 11 February, is now a national holiday called National Foundation Day. There is little historical support in reality though for such a dating, with most historical documentation not showing an Imperial family existing anywhere outside the Kansai area until about the third or fourth century AD (Varley, 2000, p. 14). Such an Imperial family as it came to be known was actually limited to the Kansai area originally (see Wakabayashi, 1991), with all other parts of Japan operating in essence as completely separate entities, linguistically, politically, and culturally, even having independent diplomatic links with the outside world, something that continued even after the development of a national Japanese identity and the formation of the modern state. As Denoon, Hudson et al. (1996) state, regarding the Ryukyus area of Japan, as one example:

An exchange network linked the Ryukyus and the North Kyushu plain in the early to mid Yayoi period, but the region remained beyond the fringes of the Yamato state of the fifth to eighth centuries, and from 1429 to 1609 constituted a flourishing city state, influenced much more by trade with China than by any contact with Japan, and also trading widely throughout East Asia. (Denoon, Hudson et al., 1996, p. 7)

Nations and national identities are modern creations, and Japan is no exception to this, despite some politicians and media commentators claiming an unbroken ethnic and cultural link to prehistoric times. As one example of this, it is simple to refer to politician Ozawa Ichirō’s declaration (Ozawa, 1993, p. 175), that Jomon Japan, the period dating from about 14,000BC to 300BC, was in fact Japan’s true essence and soul and also a panacea to the problems inflicting modern Japan, an example which fits snugly into Levinger & Lytle’s (2001) nationalist narrative structure of the ‘glorious past’ and the ‘degraded present’.  It is almost ironic that Ozawa’s Plan for the Reform of Japan extols a past culture and peoples that bear very little, if any, cultural or even ethnic resemblance to modern Japan and its people.

Although little is actually known about the immigrant history of Japan, and there are still questions regarding the connections with Polynesia and other areas, both in terms of archaeology and linguistics, it is relatively safe to assume, as Gavan McCormack’s Introduction to the edited volume Multicultural Japan does, that Japan’s prehistory is a story of diverse origins:

Skeletal, dental, and genetic anthropology, and the analysis of the genetic evidence of the different origins of animals closely connected with human habitation, such as dogs and mice, make clear that the modern Japanese are primarily descended from continental immigrants who arrived in the Yayoi and Kofun periods. The idea of a uniquely pure link between the modern Japanese and the ancient civilisation of the Jomon period cannot be sustained. The Japanese are, like all other modern peoples, a ‘mixed race’. (Denoon, Hudson et al., 1996, p. 5)

A capital city was developed in Nara in 710, moved to Kyoto in 794, and eventually to Tokyo in 1868. The creation of a capital city does not equate to Japan’s birth as a nation however, as at that time, it was still a geography owned and controlled by different interest groups, different clans with very different dialects and cultural practices and no concept of a national identity. Even today, regional parochialism and regional identities are very much a part of Japan’s national identity discourse, just like they are for most modern nations. In the early period of Japan’s history however, it was this regionalism that gave anything close to approximating a modern individual’s national identity (Tsutsui, 2009).

This period of feudalism in Japan saw the rise and fall of various family and regional groups, and the eventual development of allegiances and alliances in the aim of increasing territorial dominance. By 1185, the Minamoto clan had risen to dominance and created an early form of national, military governance in Kamakura (see Tsutsui, 2009, p. 30). This was the start of the shogunate, or warlord era, and the Imperial family, though today characterised strongly as the uninterrupted ancestral and cultural link in the history of the Japanese people, was actually considerably marginalised. The shogunate era of military leadership was one that saw almost continual civil war and battles for control and dominance. Eventual pacification of the country came around 1590 under the leadership of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This period also saw increasing trade and contact with other countries and the arrival of Christian missionaries, contact that would eventually come under stricter controls with the Tokugawa shogunate which was to follow (see Friday, 2012). The Tokugawa administration was to continue up until the restoration of the Imperial family and sovereign rule in the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and the entry of Japan into the modern era of nations.

The Meiji Era of National Identity Development

The Meiji era was the preeminent period of nation-building in Japan. It was during this period that ‘national identity’ in Japan was conceived, negotiated, debated and eventually legislated, in part as a result of growing globalisation and Japan’s need to reinvent itself as a modern nation-state. It was very much a period of competing nationalist ideologies and incredible tensions, with the hotly contested debate over whether Japan was a ‘mixed race nation’ or a ‘homogenous nation’ at the centre of these debates (see Oguma, 2002). National unity however was the goal of this period, and this involved the selection and dissemination of dominant narratives of national identity. This was a period of intensive modernisation, industrialisation, expansion, and it also saw the establishment of many of the forms of administration and governance that we find existing today in Japan (Gottlieb, 2005). The most important feature of this era of renewal and development was the focus on the Imperial line, with the emperor moved centre-stage once more, as the core around which narratives of national identity were to be woven. These narratives had to be disseminated widely as at that time most people had little knowledge about the Imperial family, with many perhaps even unaware of the existence of the emperor. One of the most important tools for nation-building is the use of media and communication technologies. As growth occurred in telephone and telegraph networks and the printing press was pushed into greater service, these tools became efficient and powerful forces in the development and dissemination of national concepts, with the Imperial family at the centre, using its historical lineage to legitimise its renewed sovereignty:

In quick succession came a national postal system (1871), a national education system (1872) and a modern communications network featuring, rail, telegraph and telephone networks. After 1870, the publication of newspapers and journals mushroomed. The lifting of the earlier restrictions on travel and choice of occupation led to a new freedom of social interaction and mobility. At national, community and personal levels, life changed on a scale not previously experienced. (Gottlieb, 2005, p. 43)

A national curriculum and education system was seen as a very real tool for instilling a sense of national identity in children, for creating unity and imparting belief and value systems. The state-run education system was the key to spreading the narratives, myths, images and discourses of national identity. It was in the classrooms that children would develop an understanding of what being Japanese meant, of the responsibilities to family and emperor and to the nation. The educational ideology of nation-building was even formalised in one of the most important documents of the period, the Imperial Rescript on Education, issued in 1890:

The Imperial Rescript on Education issued in October 1890 demanded that all schooling be grounded in Confucian ethics. This proclamation asserted both that filial piety and loyalty were ‘the fundamental glory of Our Empire’ and that a ‘national essence’, whose values had been manifest in Japan’s distant, primordial past should be the foundation for its future actions and beliefs. (Zielenziger, 2006, p. 249)

This is quite clearly the same sentiment expressed in the post-bubble 1990s by the politician Ozawa Ichirō, as previously mentioned, showing the same sentiments abound today, that of looking to the distant past to find the essence for identity today. The triadic narrative of the glorious past is ever-present. Slavoj Žižek (1991) comments on the irony in national identity appeals to forgotten past values, ‘oblivious to the fact that these values had no existence previous to our lamenting—that we literally invented them through our lamenting over their loss’ (Žižek , 1991, p. 60). The Rescript on Education and its revival is even a topic of discussion on Tokyo’s famous Meiji Jingu shrine Web site:

Meiji Jingu Shrine, which enshrines Emperor Meiji, laments on its website that the postwar removal of the Imperial rescript “significantly degraded our morality and led to the proliferation of extreme forms of individualism, causing many serious problems not only in schools, but in our local communities and at home.” “It’s time we re-recognized the value of the rescript and worked hard to resurrect a virtuous Japan,” the shrine says. (Osaki, 2017, p. 2-3)

The Rescript on Education was originally housed in schools across the country, along with photos of the Imperial family, and all students had to memorise the contents of the document and recite it each morning, along with making formal bows to the Imperial family photos (Goto-Jones, 2008). It was the national curriculum and nationwide schooling that ensured the success of this nation-building project. The schools also implemented a standardised language system based on the language of Tokyo elites. This standardisation of the language in use was also successful in disseminating cultural narratives and culture across the country, pushing many local dialects, myths and narratives to the periphery (Okamoto & Shibamoto-Smith, 2016, p. 37). Language is a very real part of identity, and the standardisation of the Japanese language and writing system across the country was a force in the development and systematic construction of a national identity. As Gottlieb (2005) tells us:

Using the Japanese language stamped them not simply as being Japanese in ordinary terms but as being an important cog in the kokutai system, part of a mystical whole set apart from other peoples and linked back through the ages to the wellsprings of national tradition in a nexus which more than anything else was considered to shape identity at this time. Identity here was conceptualised not as something fluid and multifaceted but as something static and unchanging, solid but at the same time vulnerable to attack. (Gottlieb, 2005, p. 47)

The success of the nation-building project was such that a unified Japan, complete with its dominant cultural narratives disseminated widely, with its growing military working also as a nation-building asset, now began to look to extend its borders, geographically and culturally. The myths of uniqueness and historical legitimacy used so effectively to unite the population, were also partly responsible for the following periods of military advancement that were so strongly to impact upon the national identity of future generations. The military victories over China and Russia in 1895 and 1905 respectively contributed to the sense of Japan as a defined national entity, separate from and different from other nations. It was during this period also that geographic borders and boundaries were formalised, incorporating areas in the north and south that had previously existed mostly independently economically, politically, and even linguistically. These boundaries would now include the colonised areas of Hokkaido and Okinawa as well as the geographically external areas of Micronesia, Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria. The Ainu and Okinawan groups were:

dragooned into service as ‘Japanese’ for the purposes of establishing the geographic borders of the nation state, they were assimilated to the point of being unable to receive education in their own languages. (Gottlieb, 2005, p.45)

Just how were these different groups to be brought together as subjects of the Emperor, and what identity issues would need controlling? These issues continue to make their presence felt still today, including the fallout from Japan’s rapid program of colonisation and annexation, national inclusion, then exclusion. At the centre of the ideology of Japanese national identity were the myths of the primordial past connecting everyone back through time to the Imperial family and the fabricated myth of ethnic hegemony or monoculturalism (see Murphy-Shigematsu, 1993), which clearly did not actually reflect the messy geographic, ethnic, cultural and linguistic realities of Japan’s development as a nation. Technologies and cultural narratives from abroad were also adopted rapidly, and yet kept at arm’s length, together yet apart, in a process of identification in opposition to the other, with the West now replacing China as the other against which Japanese identity could be defined:

By the early nineteenth century, then, Japan had a multilayered history of transforming itself from periphery to center by virtue of a paradoxical process—a process in which self-conscious absorption of foreign influences was coupled with the equally self-conscious creation and reinforcement of a myth of primordial national identity. The familiar Japanese slogan ‘Japanese spirit, Western technique’ is deceptively simple; what really happened was the invention of an ‘ancient Japanese spirit’, not the persistence of a mythically preexisting cultural identity that was reinforced by the adoption of foreign techniques. (Buell, 1994, p. 47)

This period of nation-building was one of the most important times in Japan’s history for the construction of a modern, yet historically rooted, national identity. It was important also for bringing the nation forward technologically, and for creating and reinforcing the sense of a unified national identity through the developing media, the nationally conscripted military, and most importantly, the new education system (see Shibata, 2004). All of these ideological systems were involved in bringing Japan to one of the most important periods in its history in terms of the effect it has had on the identity of modern Japan, namely Japan’s territorial expansion and invasion of neighbouring countries, which would lead eventually to the Pacific war and the occupation that would follow.

War and Peace

Japan is not alone in utilising nationalistic rhetoric to mobilise the populace in times of war, as it was, and still is, a very common technique. The interesting point about the following war cry written by Yokoyama Natuski in 1943 is that it inadvertently points to the influence of the war period in constructing a sense of identity, to war as the creation of history, and therefore identity, for future generations, as well as to the very gendered nature of such histories:

Death in war is undoubtedly a tragic thing. But, for ordinary Japanese, more than going to war and being sent to war, death in war is giving one’s life to the nation, so it is not just any death. It is the peak of shining honour. It is a boy’s ultimate dream. In Japan, boys are born to protect their country. They are born to create the brilliant history of Japan. Our ancestors were all like that. And of course our descendants must also be like that. (as cited in Shimazu, 2006, p. 160)

The war period actually would see a temporary halt to the myth of a homogeneous national identity, given that a large percentage of Japanese nationals were now actually colonised peoples with very different languages and cultural histories (see Weiner, 2009). Language would again come to the forefront of national identity issues, now to be used as an assimilating tool for the empire’s most recent additions, so the colonised peoples of East Asia would gain an ‘understanding of and respect for the Japanese spirit’ and to enable them to become ‘loyal subjects of the Emperor’ (Gottlieb, 2005, p. 48). Assimilation was desired to promote a sense of national belonging and identity across the new empire, with propaganda designed to impress a feeling of familial connection between Japan and the new territories it possessed, albeit a very hierarchical familial relationship, as we can see in the following discussion of Japan’s relationship to Korea at the time:

The Japanese government tried to blur this contradiction by defining its status in Korea, not as imperialist, but as ‘elder brother’ nurturing the development of ‘younger brother’. This imagery was supported by assimilationist policies imposed on the Koreans, who were enlisted in the Japanese armed forces and enrolled in the family registration system (koseki), albeit in a special category which marked them as ‘overseas residents’. But the people who were ‘Japanese’ when it came to military service suddenly ceased to be  ‘Japanese’ after the post-war peace settlement, and were thus deprived of their entitlement to Japanese war and disability pensions. (Denoon, Hudson et al., 1996, p. 10)

The defeat by the allied forces and the surrender in 1945 would bring about a great deal of change to the social, cultural and political systems and discourses previously prevalent in Japan. Militarism was gone and the Emperor, previously the core of national identity narratives, was to become a symbolic, ‘cultural institution’ (Gluck, 1993, p. 90). Many in Japan viewed the defeat as somehow representative of a lack of ‘moral fibre’ of the citizens, a decline in Japanese essence or identity. The post-war prime minister, Higashikuni, was amongst those iterating such feelings at the time, sentiments of decline or the ‘decay of public morality’ (Walker, 2015, p. 269) in comparison to the ‘glorious past’ and the ‘degraded present’ of the triadic narrative. Such sentiments regarding the modern era as being one of moral and cultural decline continue to this day, as can be seen in the following statement by Tokyo’s Governor at the time, Ishihara Shintarō, soon after the disastrous events of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011: ‘the Japanese identity is one of selfishness. We need to use the tsunami to wash away this selfishness. I think it’s God’s punishment’ (as cited in Schilling, 2011, p. 12). Such comments, more commonly heard from the religious right in America following disasters, didn’t however interfere with Governor Ishihara’s reelection success soon after. Governor Ishihara would then resign his Tokyo governorship and join forces with another popular politician from right of the political spectrum, Osaka’s Hashimoto Toru, who launched a political party to ‘revive glorious Japan’ (Japan Today, 2012), and together they would go on to win 54 seats in the December 2012 national election.

The military occupation and Japan’s non-state status saw the introduction of a vast array of changes by the occupation forces, from universal suffrage, which saw women acquiring the right to vote for the first time, to the dissolution of Japan’s military and the adoption of a pacifist constitution. This new focus on pacifism and Japan’s status as the only country to have suffered the experience of nuclear attack, would become central components of post-war national identity, ideologies that have remained under constant reappraisal, and been the source of political tensions ever since (see Hashimoto, 2015). Some of the changes, however, did little truly to alter the basic apparatus of nation-building in Japan, with the education system being but one good example. Although the system was decentralised, the central ministry remained in control in terms of what would be taught, how classes should be taught, the content of courses and textbooks, and guidelines on national symbols and rites, such as the use of the national flag and anthem during school ceremonies. These symbols continue to be highly politicised, with some teachers in Japan losing their positions for refusing to stand and sing the national anthem (Kikuchi, 2017). Education remains today a contentious building block of national identity in Japan, with debates over the ‘contentious comeback’ of the Imperial Rescript on Education (Osaki, 2017, p. 1) and the inclusion of the Imperial Japanese Army’s ‘prewar bayonetting martial art’ in the latest list of approved martial arts for school children (Aoki, 2017, p. 1).

The defeat in the war meant the previous focus on global expansion and imperial design was now shifted towards the recovery of the ‘fallen nation’ (Hashimoto, 2015, p. 12), to the rebuilding of both architecture and national identity, during a period of economic hardship and adaptation to the new political, cultural, and social realities of life in democratised Japan.

Post-War Period and Economic Development

The post-war period of peace and relative stability in Japan was a time of rebuilding, of both the damaged buildings and the scarred psyches and identities of the people after the harrowing experiences of war and defeat. Industries began to redevelop and to switch their focus from products to support the war effort towards products for domestic consumption—products representative of modern lifestyles abroad, such as the washing machine, the refrigerator, and the television (Yoshimi, 1999).

The same ideals and national identity narratives that had been used previously both to justify Japan’s imperial successes and to sustain the war effort, were now to be used again, but for different purposes, for the glory of capitalist Japan, of Japanese as consumers rather than conquerors. Japan’s economy was booming at double figure rates of growth, and with this economic advance came a revitalisation and redevelopment of national identity issues, symbols and narratives:

Nationalistic appeals continued to be used in numerous postwar campaigns to revive the nation’s economy, increase savings, ‘rationalize’ consumption, and encourage consumers to purchase Japanese products. (Garon, 1998, p. 15)

As Yoshimi (1999) points out, these economic boom years post-war were even labeled with mythological, historical emperors’ names, with the boom from 1955 called the boom of ‘Jimmu’ and that of the 1960s being ‘Izanagi’, with modern domestic appliances being labeled the sacred treasures, an association linking economic development and consumerism with the three, original sacred treasures of the Imperial family of Japan. In this way history and mythology were again brought into discourses of nationalism, now to be combined with new discourses surrounding technology and innovation as a result of Japan’s recent successes in engineering and precision technology:

We can see here a fusion of the postwar nationalism and the technologism based on Americanism. Coming from this fusion, Japanese self-confidence in their technological capabilities has been closely connected with their sense of Japanese identity since the 1960s. (Yoshimi, 1999, p. 151)

As Yoshimi goes on to describe, this re-creation of national identity centred around technological ability would be largely based on binary oppositions, artificial constructs and contrasts between the Japanese and the other, namely Americans, and to a lesser extent, Europeans. As always, history, or more precisely, mythology, was never far removed from such binary national discourses of the time. The myths accompanying the creation of the nation and the unbroken imperial links stretching back into time immemorial would also be reintroduced through the creation of the National Foundation Day in 1966, celebrating the supposed accession of Emperor Jimmu to the imperial throne, and then again with the introduction of a calendar based on the different imperial reigns. But now technology would also be added to the identity narratives (Low, 2006), to join history, nature, and the Imperial family, as key defining components of Japanese national identity in public discourses and the media, along with the now clearly articulated binary opposition to the other, to being different from the other, to being unique. These ideas began to find strong support as the country underwent rapid economic development and urbanisation and as the people searched for identity narratives in a modern world.

Us and Them: Nihonjinron, or Theories on ‘Japaneseness’

Japan’s economic transformation was picked up by various political commentators, academics, and media organisations of the time, and hailed as a glowing example of Japanese historical and cultural uniqueness, as a direct and natural result of Japanese tradition and history. All such commentary, and the thousands of publications exploring and extolling these myths of Japanese uniqueness, have been categorised as belonging to ‘Nihonjinron’, or theories on Japaneseness, and as Sugimoto (2010) points out, they all share the same underlying assumptions and discourses:

First, it is presumed that all Japanese share the attribute in question—be it amae or miniaturizing orientation—regardless of their class, gender, occupation, and other stratification variables. Second, it is also assumed that there is virtually no variation among the Japanese in the degree to which they possess the characteristic in question. Little attention is given to the possibility that some Japanese may have it in far greater degree than others. Third, the trait in question, be it group-orientation or kanjin, is supposed to exist only marginally in other societies, particularly in Western societies. That is, the feature is thought to be uniquely Japanese. Finally, the fourth presupposition is an ahistorical assumption that the trait has prevailed in Japan for an unspecified period of time, independently of historical circumstances. (Sugimoto, 2010, p. 4)

As Benedict Anderson (1991) explains it, national identity is a construction and compilation of imagined communities, reimagined and recreated with the use of mass communication tools. Although Japanese clearly do not all inhabit the same class structure, gender, and subcultural codes, these myths of ‘cultural uniqueness’ and sameness found fertile reception in the public discourses, especially during the economic boom and bubble periods in Japanese modern history (Lai, 2014, p. 78). That these assumptions about Japanese identity traits are clearly constructed myths is evidenced by research studies, such as the international study on kanjin, inter-personal relations, claimed by the Nihonjinron theorists, and in particular the sociologist Hamaguchi (1982), to be highest amongst Japanese, when an international study done by Kashima et al. (1996) actually showed the opposite findings. Hamaguchi’s conceptualisation of the individual as a unit of society rather than the individual stripped to himself or herself (Hamaguchi, 1977), and of this kanjin conceptualisation as a way to understand Japanese society, would face questioning by Hamaguchi himself in his later study of Japanese society in 1996, with Sugimoto (1999) noting of that study that Hamaguchi ‘appears to be surprised at his own empirical finding that the kanjin orientation is low in Japan in comparison with other societies he surveyed’ (Sugimoto, 1999, p. 91). Sugimoto goes on to state that ‘these studies reveal dangers of blindly equating the presence of a certain concept with the prevalence of the cultural dynamics it represents’ (1999, p. 91). Sugimoto (2010, p. 28) in a later work points again to the international study that showed this quality of kanjin actually to be lower in Japan than in any of the other countries surveyed, and points out that it is lowest among Japanese men. Befu (2001), when discussing this factor of Nihonjinron theorising, also notes:

An author might comment, for example, that only in Japan would one find certain cultural traits, linguistic features, or personality characteristics—without ever bothering to demonstrate their absence in other cultures. (Befu, 2001, p. 72)

The construction of national identity involves belief, creation, and imagination, the making real of the very unreal. As Calhoun (1997) tells us, ‘nations have multiple sources, including the discourse of nationalism itself’ (p. 23). Ideological narratives and discourses do not need to be rooted in reality, however, to have a strong impact upon those identifying with the narratives, locating their identity within them. Nakane Chie’s 1967 treatise, Tate-shakai no Ningen Kankei [Personal Relations in a Vertical Society] became a cornerstone of Nihonjiron work, presenting Japan as a unique society based on hierarchical relationships and constructs in comparison to the vaguely defined ‘West’. This text, a bestseller in Japan, also appeared in English in 1970 as Japanese society: A practical guide to understanding the Japanese mindset and culture. Hata & Smith (1983) cover some of the differences between the two language versions, which are not insignificant, but the general thesis of a unique society based on these vertical relationships and hierarchies holds true in both versions. Dale, in his book The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness (1986), discusses how the concepts that Nakane promotes as being particularly strong in Japan, and the key to understanding Japanese society and its uniqueness, are however not new or unique, and can actually be traced back through pre-war, rural sociology, and even further back to discussions of medieval Europe, often described as a vertical society (Dale, 1986).

There are thousands of publications in the ‘Nihonjinron’ arena, everything from explaining Japanese-style business, Japanese-style management, Japanese-style interpersonal relationships, to the effects of local climate and weather patterns on character. Befu (2001, p. 24) details how just one sub-section of this genre, Japanese-style Management, alone has 34 books in print with that phrase in the title. These traits have all supposedly organically grown out of some mono-cultural morass of national characteristics, as different to all other possible national styles or methods, and in many cases, as directly connected to historical traits and customs. These narratives, predominantly based on historic cultural ideas and characteristics, are powerful influences in the construction of the understanding of a ‘national identity’. Japan is not the only nation constructing its identity discourse in forms of binary oppositions, yet the discourse of national identification in Japan requires the other, and the process of differentiation. Identity is forged upon this concept of being different and unique from the other, with the other excluded from the ‘we’, or as Yoshino (1992) described it:

The endless discussions of Japanese uniqueness are, if more precisely put, discussions of difference, but difference of a specific kind. Japanese identity is the anti-image of foreignness and, as such, can only be affirmed by formulating the images of the Other; namely, the West (or in a previous age, China). (Yoshino, 1992, p. 11)

These ideas of difference are also based upon a myth of racial unity and uniqueness, the myth that the Japanese are all of the same racial and ethnic background, that there is some entity known as the Japanese race which includes all the cultural components of Japanese identity also, and such cultural components can only be inherited through the bloodline. This connection between race, ethnicity, blood, cultural traits and identity, is behind many of the Nihonjinron writings. This inevitably leads to conclusions that there are certain things that can only be understood or appreciated by the Japanese, certain concepts about the world and the people in it. As Befu (2001) puts it:

Comprehension of these unique features supposedly requires not rational or logical understanding but an intuitive insight into Japanese culture that only natives can achieve. Thus foreigners are defined as incapable of understanding the essence of Japanese culture. (Befu, 2001, p. 67)

These ideas of a homogenous Japan continue today and are especially prevalent in the corridors of political and media power. As Befu notes (2001, p. 60), the discourse of a harmonious Japanese society, rooted in historical fictions, in the triadic narrative of the ‘glorious past’, the ‘degraded present’, and the ‘utopian future’, appeals to many as it is a useful way of covering up what is actually, like all modern societies, a fractured blend of differences, with a seedy underbelly that doesn’t mesh well with the public narratives of a well-ordered, uniform identity.

Consumerism, Brandism, Popular Culture in the Post-Bubble Reality

Global market advances, the rapid spread of communication technologies, and consumers flush with economic success, have all played their part in expanding the identity discourses and narratives at play in modern Japan. Every national identity discourse in the world has felt the influence of consumerism, commodification, and the globalising of symbols, images and desires. However, as Coulmas (2007) points out, globalisation has in many ways been a factor that has worked to strengthen national identity discourses:

The fact that 95 per cent of the respondents of a 2003 attitude survey carried out by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation NHK’s Broadcasting Culture Research Institute ‘feel glad that they were born Japanese’ can hardly be taken as an expression of life satisfaction or happiness, but rather suggests a strong sense of ethnic and national identity. (Coulmas, 2007, p. 3)

Education is, as always, one of the dominant players in selecting and reinforcing certain identity narratives. The national curriculum, or Course of Study as it is known, is often revised with the pertinent issues of the time colouring each iteration. As Caroline Rose (2006) tells us:

Since the 1980s these revisions have been controversial since increasing emphasis has been placed on inculcating Japanese children with a greater sense of patriotism and self-awareness of their ‘Japanese-ness’ in order to help them function well in international society. (Rose, 2006, p. 134)

As internationalisation chips away at traditional national identities and discourses, there is a refocusing on a patriotic sense of nationalism, a looking inwards to see this ‘beautiful country’ (Abe, 2006). One common belief amongst many politicians and commentators is that the key cause of Japan’s international stagnation is the inability of its citizens to articulate what Japanese identity is, an inability to extol the beauty of Japan’s essence to the international community (see Abe, 2006; and Ito, 2012). Their solution to this is to reinforce patriotism and revitalise traditional, historical concepts of what it means to be Japanese, to raise the ‘glorious past’ as the panacea for unstable times. Former Education Minister, Shimomura Hakubun, stressed this need to look to the glorious past:

I am not saying that we need to go back to prewar (nationalism), but we need to teach our children the more than 2,000-year history of Japan's wonderful traditions and culture. During the 67-year postwar period, I think the Japanese people (lost) certain qualities they used to have, such as diligence and consideration toward others—the Japanese spirit—and that is why I want to reform the country's education system. (Ito, 2012)

Brandism has offered another possible discourse to find one’s identity in Japanese society today, a society that is increasingly viewed as fractured and in many ways displaying signs of the breakdown of traditional social structures and identity narratives. Today’s younger generations are often referred to as Shinjinrui Junior, or the Yutori generation, following on from the original Generation-X term, Shinjinrui, adopted for those born between 1961 and 1970, meaning a new species of humans. As Hogan (1999) tells us about the original categorisation of Generation-X youth as Shinjinrui, and which is applicable also in many ways to succeeding generations of youth:

The term highlights perceived changes in the consumption habits, values and physical appearance of postwar generations. Such changes are often attributed to the increasing foreign influences associated with the project of internationalisation. Changes to the Japanese diet and other consumption practices, to social ethics, such as group and filial responsibility, and to the Japanese language itself have emerged as sites of anxiety about, and resistance to, internationalisation. (Hogan, 1999, p. 747)

It is not just the younger generation that is changing in Japan however. There is also a rapidly expanding older generation, which, when coupled with Japan’s very low birth rates, is leading the country into a very different statistical set to anything it has encountered before (see Otake, 2017). A large, relatively wealthy class of older people and a large number of young people facing ‘uncertain employment prospects’ (Coulmas, 2007, p. 11), is just one result of static immigration policies and the low fertility rate, a rate that was ‘calculated in 2005’ at 1.25 (Coulmas, 2007, p. 2), but recovered slightly to 1.42 in 2016 (Ono, 2016). There are also multiple social problems accompanying the changing demographics in Japan, compounded by the changes in employment, where ‘part-timers, temps, or contract workers now account for nearly 40 percent of the workforce compared to about 20 percent in the 1980s’ (Sieg & Miyazaki, 2017, p. 2). The word Kakusashakai, or gap-widening society, is to be found everywhere in print and television, along with discussion of the collapse of the middle-class society that Japan supposedly once was. Although Japan has always had gaps between those who have and those who have not, these facts were never so prominent in the discourses of identity in Japan, nor discussed widely in the media. They have now come to the forefront and entered into not just the lexicon of media pundits, but into daily life and into the modern narratives of Japanese identity. This widening income gap is also largely generational, contributing to the idea that each successive generation of youth is in some ways a new class or new species of Japanese.

An ageing society, population decline, new employment practices focusing on part-time workers with little in the way of benefits or long-term opportunities, have all contributed to changing identity narratives for Japan. Changing social dimensions such as sexuality, ethnic minorities, class, and most importantly, gender, have all impacted upon, and been impacted by, representations of nationality identity. Mackie’s (2002, p. 219) archetypal citizen, ‘the white-collar, heterosexual, able-bodied, fertile, Japanese male, with a secure place in the sex-gender system’, although still occupying a central position, is no longer the only contributor to national identity narratives. The Nihonjinron concepts of Japanese being all one, the same, and different from other cultures and peoples, of social harmony, have lost much of their impact in the face of Japan’s changing social and economic conditions, the reality of a gap-widening Japan economically and socially, a polarised and fractured society of those who have and those who don’t:

In the case of Japan, the 1990s witnessed a multiple breakdown of political, economic, and sociocultural orders and induced a visible shift in the mood of society reflecting an end to the glorious age of Japanese economic success on the global stage. The decade saw a burgeoning political instability, the Heisei depression and financial crisis, and the so-called burst of the bubble economy, developed in the midst of the dramatic international geopolitical restructuring that followed the end of the Cold War. (Iida, 2000, p. 424)

One traditional narrative however is often reinforced by such modern social cleavage, the narrative of a golden history, of looking to the ‘glorious past’ to find a base for modern identity constructions, to a time when Japan supposedly had more social cohesion and dynamism. The past can be fetishised, marketed, consumed, and even created where it did not exist, as Tobin (1992) tells us in his brief discussion of a modern community in Tokyo. A post-war construct, the community literally invented its tradition and history, carrying their newly bought Shinto shrine ‘proudly once a year through the streets’ (Tobin, 1992, p. 29), as if their ancestors had been carrying that exact relic for hundreds of years in the same area. As Olsen (2010) puts it in a discussion of material culture, objects, and social life, ‘traditions and cultures are invented, nations imagined, and knowledge constructed’ (p. 5). This imagining, however, has very real impacts in identity narratives. It is the imagining of some unbroken connectivity stretching back through a history that is usually anything but a smooth, peaceful transition from past to present, that is given life and material form in symbols such as flags, anthems, parades, capital cities, fairy stories, dance, literature, advertising, and familial bonds. In a modern, fractured society, however, can the past always be counted on to provide stability and cohesion, to provide narratives for all? Or, does the focus on the ‘degraded present’ and the ‘glorious past’ impact negatively upon other possible identity narratives, particularly those that younger Japanese find themselves negotiating in a globalising world?


The past is negotiable, yet it remains a powerful base or foundation for the construction of modern Japanese identity and continues to be appealed to in attempts to strengthen identification through and with the nation. This focus on tradition and history is particularly relevant in the modern era in the face of globalisation and the hegemonising cultural forces that accompany developments in technology, communication, media, and economic integration. There is an argument that the nation and national identity are no longer as significant as they once were, given the forces of globalisation and the multiple possibilities for identity that these changes bring (see Ariely, 2012). However, in counter-balance to the trend towards transnational identity, history is often produced as a constant, seen as a reliable source of identity when identity is in a state of flux, when the available sources and options for identification are multiplying and expanding. Levinger & Lytle’s ‘triadic narrative’ (2001) offers a framework to understanding national identity narratives in Japan, how the ‘glorious past’ can rescue the nation from its ‘degraded present’ and deliver it into a ‘utopian future’. As Harootunian (2000) explains it, history appeals ‘to older historical representations of the authentic cultural object as a way to replace abstraction and fragmentation with concreteness and wholeness’ (p. xxi). It is for this reason that many states, with Japan being but one example, focus their educational, political, and media resources back onto the glory of the past, onto times when identity formation and reproduction was a much simpler task. History is not some static version of the past that remains unchanged in the present, but is, however, a ‘constant dialogue between the past and the present in which each interrogates and illuminates the other’ (Parekh, 1994, p. 504). As successive generations reimagine and reinterpret the narratives of national identity, it is uncertain whether the triadic narrative structure will continue to offer the greatest embrace of generational change, but it is this constant dialogue and reinterpretation that contributes to the ongoing process of nation building and the construction of national identity discourses in Japan.


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About the Author

Sebastian Brooke teaches Media and Communications at Kogakuin University in Tokyo where he is currently an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Advanced Engineering. He has also been a faculty member in New Zealand at both Otago University and The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. His recent presentations and publications investigate national identity constructions in television advertising and the media in Japan.

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